The One Step Process for More Engaging Performances

Wait... can a single step be considered a process? 

I don't think it can. Well, whatever, I'll just add another step. Now it's the two step process for more engaging performances.

Step One: Uhm... wash your hands. 

Step Two: Eliminate confidence.

In the world of amateur magic, I've found the more confident you are in what you're showing someone, the less interested they are in seeing it. When people see a magic trick, we'd like to think they're thinking, "This is impossible!" But it's more likely that they're thinking, "This is fake." You can't blame people for thinking that way, because it's completely true. And confidence actually emphasizes the fake aspect rather than the impossible aspect. 

Not only that, but confidence makes things look easy. 

When you're on a date or a job interview, you want to speak confidently. You want your conversation with this other person to seem easy to you. You don't want interacting with someone to seem like a struggle.

But what if you're walking a high-wire?

Person A walks the high-wire and he eases himself onto it and throughout his journey he pauses and wobbles and has to repeatedly center himself and seems to be on the verge of falling off once or twice.

Person B walks confidently across the rope to the other side with no more difficulty than you or I would walk down the sidewalk.

Most tight-rope walkers could walk across the rope as Person B does, but instead they choose to do it as Person A does. 

That's because an audience member seeing Person B doesn't think, "She's really good at that!" What they think is, "I guess that's easier than I thought."

You might think, "Ah, but I want it to look easy. I want to be the guy who makes the impossible look easy." But you won't make the impossible look easy. As I mentioned above, people's default reaction to a magic trick isn't that it's impossible, it's that it's fake. So you'll make the fake look easy. When things seem easy and fake they're essentially pointless.  

So how do you apply this idea practically? 

Well, this whole site is essentially an exercise on the principle of removing confidence from your presentations.  

The Distracted Artist style involves the magic happening with no preamble. The spectators never get a sense of your confidence because there is no build-up to the trick.

The Peek Backstage style is lack-of-confidence as presentation. It's simply you saying, "I need your help with this because I don't know if it's working right."

When I talk about removing yourself from the role of the "magician" behind what you're presenting, it's because that puts the magic outside of your control. And you can't be confident about something that's outside of your control. 

When I say "remove confidence" I don't mean you should be an awkward, mumbling, sweaty mess. It's not your personal confidence that I think you should eliminate. It's your confidence in what's about to take place. Eliminate certainty. Certainty doesn't make for compelling experiences.

This is why overly-scripted patter tends to be a turn-off to people in a casual performance. "He's so certain of what's going to happen he made up a dumb little story about it!" This doesn't feel organic or personal to them. It feels like you might as well be replaying a video of the trick as you did it for someone else. 

A lack of certainty suggests that you and your spectator are going to discover what happens together, in the moment. What happens when we try this gypsy good-fortune ritual? What happens when we follow these weird instructions I found crammed in the seat crack of the bus? Does this new technique for cheating at cards really work? Why is there this big warning on this website not to view this optical illusion three times in a row, what could be the harm?

Presenting without certainty pushes you to come up with alternative contexts for tricks. It removes the one big weak justification magicians use most often: "I'm going to do this because I can." 

How to Remain Anonymous

I received an email from someone who was considering starting a magic blog and wanted to know how to remain anonymous. 

The thing is, I don't know that it's really possible to be a one-man operation and remain completely anonymous. Just for logistics you need a couple of people who will assist you under their own name (especially if you're going to be selling anything). I had help when I wrote my old blog and I have more help now. Ideally you want people who will be willing to take credit for the site if someone suggests they're the person behind it. 

That's the key.

How do you keep the method to a magic trick secret? You can try and make it so clever and impossible to guess that no one ever figures it out, but that's pretty unlikely. Instead, lead people to think it's another method. They'll be satisfied they have the answer and your secret is still safe.

But if you're considering starting a blog and want to remain anonymous, my real advice is "don't bother." If you get big enough that anyone actually cares who you are, it will require way too much work to remain anonymous (having stuff mailed to a third party, doing your communication through a proxy, etc). I only do it now because I've had systems in place for so long to deal with it. But I don't really care. As I've said before, I'm not trying to remain anonymous to keep magicians from knowing who I am in real life, but to keep people who know me in real life from knowing who I am in the magic world. 

Coming in the JAMM #1

I review the OX Bender by Menny Lindenfeld.

Is this the best way to bend an ox? We'll find out.

Subscribe here.

Old School Street Magic

Who do you model your street magic style after?

Is it the casual, enigmatic style of David Blaine?

Is it the approachable, hip-hop influenced style of Dynamo?

Is it whatever this style would be considered?

Well, for me, there is only one name that is synonymous with hard-core street magic. And when I pop on my freshest pair of kicks and head out to amaze the locals with my vital, exciting brand of live, in-your-face, miracles, there is just one man I'm trying to emulate.

You KNOW I'm talking about my main mofo Jim Stott.

And here's a guarantee you can take to the bank when you buy Jim Stott's Ultimate Street Magic Kit.

This ain't yo daddy's street magic kit!

It's your granddad's!

You can get a taste of Jim's street style in this video for his kit.

Oooohhh baby! Now just imagine that understated midwestern pleasantness... taken to the streets!

The Street Magic Kit, by the way, is incredible. It has all the standard stuff, but also some hard candy and a little container of Metamucil. And an essay on why proper penmanship is still important. "A nice young lady isn't going to be won over by a love letter sent over one of those damned e-computers." He's got a point.

The tricks are fine, but it's the tips he gives that offer the most value. Things like how to deliver the proper bone-crushing handshake and what you should wear when you perform. (A sweater, in case it gets chilly out there. And for the love of Pete, tuck in your darn shirt!)

And yeah, like most street magicians, Jim's a bit of dog. He loves the ladies. And you know he doesn't turn a blind eye to the seductive powers of magic. Many of these tricks can be used to get into them panties.

I give the Ultimate Street Magic Kit 5 stars.

Ok, but did you really buy it, Andy?

Uh...hell yeah I did. I'm the guy who was trying to put coins under the shells for the shell game.

You might think that makes me an idiot, but my Pop-Pop thinks otherwise.

Thanks to Jim Stott for releasing this product and providing us with his insights on working the unforgiving urban areas, the ghettos, the projects, the hardscrabble streets of this wonderful country.

I'll close with this inspiring pic of Jim bringing some raw street magic to a violent gangbanger in Compton, California.

Mind-Reading, My Sweet

Coming in the JAMM #1

You give your friend an envelope to hold.

"I want you to go back in your mind and think of a really resonant memory from your childhood or a secret from your childhood or any memorable occurrence from your youth that I could never know. The fewer people who know about this incident the better, but just make sure it's something that stands out in your mind. And don't make it anything too dark. I'm not going to ask you specifically what this memory is, but I don't want to get into anything too unpleasant. Do you have something in mind?"

"Okay now boil that memory down to one word. So if you were thinking of shoplifting a lipstick when your were a kid, you might just think of the word 'lipstick.' Got it?"

"You asked me the other day how I read minds. The answer is, I don't. If I could read your mind I could tell you what word you're thinking of. But I can't do that."

"What I could do is hire a former CIA spy who now runs a private detective agency. Someone who knows all about secret communication and clandestine information retrieval. And I could have him follow you for months, digging through your garbage and sneaking into your house when you're out. And I could have him speak to your old friends, family, former employers, and even old school teachers. He could piece together documents—old yearbooks, timecards, journals, tax records, your Blockbuster rental history from 1998—to create a complete record of your youth. A day-by-day, hour-by-hour account of where you were and what you were doing since you learned to walk and talk. And then by analyzing this mountain of data he could identify a particular memory from your youth that you would summon up when asked to think of something memorable, but not too obvious. Something very few people, if anyone else, would know, but something that stuck with you throughout the years."

"I know, you're thinking that's impossible. I'll prove to you that it's not. What word are you thinking of?"

She says, "Goldfish."

You tell her to take out the envelope you handed her earlier. It's a piece of mail addressed to you with no return address. "A couple days ago, my private investigator sent me that letter. In it is a sheet of paper with one word on it. The word his investigations suggested you would think of."

The spectator opens the sealed envelope they have been holding since the start of the effect.

The spectator unfolds the paper inside.

Written on the paper in large letters is the word she was thinking of.

  • Works 100% of the time
  • No nail-writing or pocket-writing
  • No pre-show of any kind. You could perform it for anyone off the street.
  • No confederates
  • A genuine free choice of any word at all.
  • The spectator can keep the envelope and prediction at the end of the effect.

Am I leaving something out? Yes, of course! But all of the above is true. And the part I'm leaving out is actually my favorite part of the trick. It's a twist in the presentation that only makes the trick more interesting. 

Mind-Reading, My Sweet is designed for casual situations and wouldn't work table-hopping, or something like that. (Although a variation that could work for parlor or stage is hinted at as well. I don't give a full description of the stage-method (as I've never performed it), but I get you about 80% of the way there.)

For this effect and much more, subscribe to the JAMM.

Magician as Spectator

Imagine someone comes up to you at a the bus stop. 

"You'll never believe what I can do," the guy says.

Then he starts putting pressure on his finger until it pops and then bending it back and forth in a way that suggests incredible flexibility or some kind of double-jointed situation.

You would probably say, "Oh, wow... look at that."

And then when he left you'd turn to the person next to you and say, "What a total fucking goon. I mean, what kind of loser is compelled to show people their bendy finger?"

And yet, there was a trick released last year that let you become that socially dysfunctional weirdo.

It's called Breaking Point by Johannes Mengel.

Here's the unnecessarily long trailer.

In the advertising for this effect they mention how believable it is, as if that's a postive. Some performers are so far up their own ass that they think it's a good thing to bend your finger in a "believable" way (rather than bending it at an unbelievable angle or removing it entirely or something like that). 

But you have to admit, Andy, that trick got a reaction.

You would get an identical reaction by dipping your finger in an oozing bedsore. Getting a reaction is easy. Pick your nose and eat a booger if your only goal is to make people squirm. (You don't have to really eat a booger. You can pretend to. People will still squirm. Should I release that as a download?)

There is a danger in magic of getting caught up in the deception of it all. This is a magician-centric approach to what good magic is. "It looks like I'm doing something that I'm not really doing, so this is a good trick." 

At some point you have to consider the effect from the spectator's perspective. 

Magician as Spectator

Usually when you read the description of a trick, you think about what it might be like to perform it yourself. And it seems pretty good in your mind because... well, that's how our mind works. We're the hero of our own story. 

I can't talk you out of being the hero in order to give yourself a more balanced perspective on how a trick will be perceived. But instead of being the hero magician, imagine yourself as the hero spectator. Now it's someone else performing the trick. You're just watching it. When you imagine some other schlub performing it directly to you, its weaknesses may be more apparent. 

Is that clever propless mentalism routine something you as a spectator would be interested in, or are the machinations just interesting to you as a performer?

As a spectator, watching this 5-phase routine, does each phase become more impossible? Or do they dilute the effect? Would it be stronger to concentrate everyone's focus on one magical moment?

Richard Osterlind has an effect where a coin goes into a bottle and then he says, "The only way to get the coin out of the bottle is to break it." And he breaks the bottle. If you think of yourself as the spectator, is that what you want to see? Someone destroy this impossible object so you can have your 25 cents back? 

Do you want to watch someone bend their finger in an unsettling but believable manner? More importantly, what would you think of someone who came up to you and did that, especially if you thought there was no trick involved?

Is there any body part you'd be interested in watching someone bend around in front of you? 

Well, maybe one.

Just be honest.

Be honest, dude. We all know what you want to see.

You little sicko.

Young Reckless Hearts

This post is about the approach I'm taking to performing magic and why I'm performing it the way I do these days. It's going to be a little rambly because the ideas are a little rambly in my head.

I reached out to an old school friend, Kathy, and suggested we meet up as I would be back in our hometown for and extended period over the holidays. While we had exchanged a couple messages over social media, we hadn't seen each other since high school.

We met up for dinner a couple weeks before Christmas at the thai food restaurant owned by another school friend's parents. She looked amazing in a festive red sweater-dress and I told her so.

"You look great too," she said.

"Yeah, no shit," I said, picking up with the witty banter from where I left it when we were 17.

Over dinner she asked if I still did magic. 

"Every now and then," I said. "Actually, maybe I can try something with you later."

After dinner we sat in my car talking. At one point she takes the deck of cards out of the cup-holder in the console between us and says, "Show me something." 

I have her pick a card, give her the chance to change her mind if she doesn't like it. She ends up with the four of diamonds. I have her tear off the corner, then I have her sign the card and initial the torn corner and put it in her purse.

We step out of my car and walk around the back towards the trunk. With a lighter I burn her card (as much as possible) and let the ash and charred pieces drop on my trunk in a little pile. 

"Watch," I say, as I cover the pile of destroyed card with my hand. After a few moments I lift my hand. Nothing has happened. "One more try," I say, and cover the pile again. I let a little more time pass than before and raise my hand again. Still nothing. Just a pile of ash and burnt card. "What the crap?" I mumble. "Screw that. I can't make it work," I say.

"You used to be good," she says.

A half hour later, as we sit in her car talking, outside our old high school, I say, "You know what we have to do tonight, yes?"

She squints at me as if to say, "You know I'm married, right?" But with just enough of a smile to suggest, "But it's a pretty loveless arrangement and I could maybe be talked into something."

"It's been 30 years. We have to dig up our time capsule," I say.

"When did we bury a time capsule?" she asks. 

"30 years ago. Just like I just said."

She (understandably) claims to have no memory of this. But who remembers all the stuff you did as a little kid? "I would never have thought of it either," I say, "but I found an old note I made to myself about opening it in 30 years and that jogged my memory. I have no clue what's in there."

We drive to my parent's place and pick up a shovel and then walk a quarter mile to the creek that runs behind our housing development. There is a large tree stump at the top of what used to be our sledding hill. Somehow, in the intervening 30 years, the ground has leveled off to the point where it's almost flat. We're both fairly surprised by how the landscape can change so dramatically in what feels like a short period of time. 

I start to dig near the tree trunk where I remember burying the time capsule. After a few minutes with no luck I start rotating around the tree until my shovel strikes something. I ask her to grab it and she pulls out an old, rusted GI Joe lunchbox. (Like this one, but in significantly worse shape.)

We bring it back to my parent's house and open it up on the hood of my car, illuminated by the christmas lights and street lamp. A good amount of dirt has made its way into the lunchbox and we have to sift through it to find everything. There's a Madball. Some M.U.S.C.L.E. men. A can of New Coke. One of her slap bracelets and one of her barrettes with a plastic bow on it. An old dollar. A David Lee Roth cassette and some other little items. Then she removes a worn, sealed coin envelope with my faded scrawl on it.

For Kathy.
Don't open for 30 years.
(It won't make sense until then.)

"What is this?" she asks.

"I don't remember," I say. "Open it. Oh... I hope it's not a love letter or something."

She tears it open and removes an old, tattered and beat-up playing card. The four of diamonds, with a missing corner, and her name signed on it in ballpoint pen in her bubbly adolescent handwriting. 

We both look at each other.

"Get that other corner I say."

She grabs her purse and removes the corner from her wallet. The initialed corner from the new four of diamonds is a perfect tear-for-tear match with the just unearthed 30-year-old card.

"Shit. I really was good at this stuff." I say, scratching my head.

Here's enough of the method for you to figure out what's going on.

Reverse Psychology Force
1800 Deck (with some extra aging of the card via roughing it up a bit (an "old" card that is almost super smooth and new feeling is bizarre))
A forged signature based on her signed name in an old yearbook.

The slap bracelet and barrette were the only item that actually belonged to either of us as kids. I found them in a shoebox on a previous visit home and remembered taking them from her as a kid because I had a crush on her. 

A reader wrote late last year and said:

"Your writing made me examine what I'm putting out there when I perform and WHY I'm performing at all. And while I recognize there might be something awkward or unpleasant about trying to make it seem like I have some unique gifts, I don't really know what the alternative is."

I think a lot of people feel that way and so a lot of people just don't perform. 

There are people who want validation and want acclaim and think they can get that by doing magic tricks. I don't really agree with that, but it makes sense on some level. 

The problem is, some people "evolve" past this neediness and then feel like, "Well... why bother performing?" And so they'll read and practice and discuss concepts and theory with other magicians, but they won't actually utilize any of these things in the real world. Even the idea that they might use this knowledge to entertain others feels oddly narcissistic or desperate to these people. "Hello everyone! I have just what you need. A little bit of me to brighten your day!"

So if it's not for validation and it's not to entertain them, why do I perform? Why bother spending $50 on a bunch of old toys and burying them in the dead of winter?

You wanted to impress her.

That's not why.

You wanted to charm her. You wanted to hook up with this girl you used to have a crush on.

No. If charming her was the goal I wouldn't bother with a trick.

Then why?

Someone once told me I act like a teenager, and he intended it as an insult. But I was fine with that comment. I'm into teenagers.

Uhm, not in the creepy way.

And not in the pathetic way, like, "Hey brah, those kicks are on fleek."

In fact, it's probably fair to say I find most teenagers unbearable to be around, but there is an energy they possess that I admire. Teenagers, more than any other demographic, have a restless energy that pushes them to create and explore new experiences.

We associate a desire for new experiences with youth. If you see a 55 year old man and he says, "I'm going to get some friends and we're going to shoot a movie on our iphones," or, "I'm going to see if I can sled off the roof and into the pool," he seems like a youthful guy. Even if the new experience is something more "sophisticated"—if he says, "I'm going to divest my 401k and use the money to open a restaurant"—that feels like a youthful move. It doesn't seem "mature." 

I'm wary of the word "mature." It often seems like a euphemism for lazy.

I don't just think new experiences are appreciated more by the young, I think they help keep you young.

And I think amateur magic is uniquely suited to provide people with new experiences.

Lots of magicians say, "I don't want to just do a trick. I want to create an experience."

And then they sit back and do a trick. 

I'm not the first person to talk about creating an experience, I just might be the first one to mean it.

Seeing a card trick is an experience for the spectator.

Seeing two card tricks is still just one experience for the spectator.

We pull out a deck of cards and ask the person to select one and they say, "I've seen this one before." And we think to ourselves, "What a fucking idiot. He doesn't even know what I'm going to do." But for him it doesn't matter. It feels pretty much the same regardless. If your audience isn't specifically into magic, then more tricks can just be more of the same. You might wonder how a 4-ace trick can feel the same as Reset, but to some it can. All mariachi music sounds 100% identical to me. All classical ballets look the same. For some people, all card tricks are just cards going from here to there or changing to other cards.

But if you zoom out one level up from the tricks and focus on giving people new experiences you can eliminate this sameness.

This is why I harp so much on removing the performer from the effect.

The performer did this = I saw a performance

This thing occurred = I had an experience

I now think almost entirely in the context of "experience" and not trick. 

For example, with the "Peek Backstage" style, the actual trick is almost irrelevant. The interesting thing to the audience is the experience of seeing a work-in-progress by a magician and being part of the effect coming together.

If I want to go to a "haunted" location and float an object, it doesn't really matter what the object is or how it floats. It's about the experience of being in this house where a father wood-chipped his family and now something strange is happening. 

I could do the "Peek Backstage" card trick, and then float something at the "haunted" house and those would feel like two unique experiences to someone.

But if I just performed those tricks in my living room without a thought towards experience the spectator would think, "He showed me some tricks." It would just be one experience.

Is this making sense? 

But Andy, they ultimately know you do magic and that these things are tricks, so it's all the same regardless of how you try to differentiate them.

No. We're not that rational. If an experience feels different, then it is different.

But that would just be weird to try and spring this sort of thing on the people I know and have been performing for for years. It's more comfortable to ask them to see a trick than say, "Hey, let's drive a half hour from here to some old house where a guy murdered his family and see if something interesting will happen." 

I get that. The style of amateur magic I'm proposing on this site is definitely easier to get into with people you haven't performed for before than it is with people you already show tricks to on a regular basis. Those people are in a groove as much as you are. So maybe this is just something you adopt with new people going forward. Or maybe you make a joke out of the whole thing and that lets you transition styles in a more "meta" way. Maybe you make a big pronouncement to your wife, "That's IT! I'm not doing any more magic tricks. What a waste of time. I can't be horsing around with that type of foolishness anymore." Then ten seconds later, "Hey, sweetheart, could I get your help with a voodoo love ritual I'm trying? Rest assured it's NOT a magic trick. I don't do those anymore." I think you will find that even though she's seen 100s of your card tricks, and even though she knows this is just another card trick, and even though she understands you're just kidding around; framing it as a different experience will still trick her brain into taking more of an interest in it. 

So that is where my head is at, and that is my focus as we begin Jerx 2017. I'm not doing magic for validation or for people to think I'm clever. I'm not even doing it strictly to "entertain" people. I'm doing it to give people an interesting, novel experience. It's about creating memories. Memories are just new experiences in the past. No one ever says, "Ah yes, I remember the 6th time I fucked my wife." Unless something new happened that 6th time.

Thinking of magic in terms of the experience, rather than the trick, makes perfect sense. As I said, magic is uniquely suited to creating new experiences. The only artistic experience you can give someone if you play the violin is to play the violin for them. That's fine. But magic allows for the creation of any experience. 

It's not the sole way I perform. I still end up performing a few mindless card tricks around a coffee table for those who like that sort of thing. I certainly still like that sort of thing. But I think focusing on experience is the most rewarding way to perform (for me at least).

Some of you will get hung up on this because it requires you to invest more thought in the spectator's concerns than your own. It's easier just to do the tricks and be like, "take it or leave it." You're worried that if you perform in a way that suggests you care and put effort into it, that maybe you'll feel dumb if they don't care about it. Okay, that's valid. But it's also an awfully frightened way to go through life. But go ahead, never invest. Then you can lie on your deathbed and say, "I win! No one ever made me feel dumb for caring too much!"

Me? I invest. I invested time planning. I invested $50 bucks buying some old toys from the 80s off ebay. I invested energy burying a lunchbox around the icy roots of a tree stump and then doing my best to make the ground and snow seem undisturbed. But I get the payoff too. I get the memory of that night. The memory of tipsily stumbling through the snow to a place we shared a history as kids— sledding in the winter or capturing tadpoles amidst the cat-tails in the summer (I sound like Tom Sawyer). I get the memory of digging into the hard earth under December's full moon—the Full Cold Moon as the Farmer's Almanac calls it—and the shovel ting'ing off the lunchbox and the look on her face when she realized there was really something there. 

"This is the most insane night of my life," she said after matching up the new torn corner to the 30-year-old playing card with her childhood signature on it. "You just made my year," she said, radiating with energy.

New experiences make the world feel new. And when the world feels new, you feel young. Or, at the very least, you recognize that you're not dead yet.

I love music that evokes youth too. (Not music that young people like. They like shit.)

This post takes its name from this fuzzed-out power-pop song by Warm Soda, which has only garnered this one comment in the past couple years on youtube:

"goddamn, this is more teenage than i am (and i'm 15)"

Coming in the JAMM #1

One of the rules I tried to adhere to when I was writing the X-Communication newsletter was to not review something unless I had personally performed it (or at least seen it performed by someone else in real life). There were a few times where I couldn't—and sometimes where a trick was so fundamentally flawed I didn't need to do it—but for the most part I did and it always led to better reviews which were informed not just by my opinion of the trick/method, but my experience performing it. I will try to keep that up with the reviews in the JAMM as well, if for no other reason than that actually performing the effects makes it easier to write about them. And it often allows for the evolution of a presentation that is more in line with my style .

Late last year there was a really offbeat effect put on the market with a super clever gimmick behind it. After playing with it and performing it a few times (and getting really good reactions), I came up with an alternate presentation that has been getting even better reactions. You'll find my review and handling for the effect— which is in my top 3 of the year—in the JAMM #1.

You can subscribe to The JAMM here.